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How coronavirus is complicating Olympic qualification

How an uncertain spring is affecting runners' chances at becoming Olympians

The rapid spread of coronavirus has already caused numerous changes in the 2020 racing season. News of events being cancelled or postponed is breaking daily. This is having an effect upon every road runners’ racing season, including those trying to qualify for the upcoming Olympics. While the IOC says the Olympics will go ahead as planned, the Games have already been impacted, even before they’ve begun.

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Factory closures

Molly Huddle, the American half-marathon record holder, wrote in Slate Magazine yesterday that factory closures have meant that some athletes aren’t getting their gear–a small price to pay for worker safety, but a consideration for runners nonetheless. At the Olympic Trials, which took place on February 29, Huddle raced in some well-worn flats. “I had to race on some shoes with maybe 100 more miles on them than I’d have liked,” she says, “as the fresh pair of Saucony flats I ordered a few months ago were coming directly from the factory in China and production had already been shut down when I tried to do my usual pre-race order about five weeks out.”

Less opportunity for qualification

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One possible avenue for Olympic hopefuls to achieve standard is through a top-10 finish at a World Major Marathon. The 2020 Tokyo Marathon mass participation race was cancelled, but the elites were still allowed to run (though the course was without spectators and the field sizes was under 200).

As the situation progresses, there’s speculation that the next two World Majors on the calendar (Boston and London) could be outright cancelled. And even if the elite races still run, travel bans will affect runners’ ability to get to the race.

Andre De Grasse celebrates after winning the men's 200m at the Pan American Games
Andre De Grasse celebrates after winning the men’s 200m at the Pan American Games

Fewer points to go around

For track runners who haven’t achieved standard, world ranking will play a huge role on their shot at qualification. One place where runners stood a chance to gain big points was at the 2020 World Indoor Championships, which has now been postponed until 2021.

Another spot for points, which would’ve been a huge grab for marathoners, was the World Half-Marathon Championships which has also been postponed until fall 2020.

Running out of time

Huddle was unsuccessful in her bid for the 2020 Olympic at the Marathon Trials, and now she’s shifted her focus towards the 10,000m on the track. While Huddle thankfully has enough time to (hopefully) find herself on an Olympic start line, for runners who’ve put all their chips in the spring marathon bag, time is running out.

Ried Coolsaet is planning to run the Prague Marathon on May 3, exactly four weeks before the Canadian team is selected on May 31. If Prague doesn’t go ahead as planned, there’s limited time for him to come up with a successful plan B. Krista DuChene and Dylan Wykes are due to line up in Boston, in hopes of a top-10 finish.

Rachel Cliff didn’t race Tokyo due to the time cut-off in the men’s race: “It was looking spread out from 2:21 to 2:30,” Cliff said. She has a marathon PB of 2:26:56, which she was looking to improve in Tokyo to better her chances of being selected for the Canadian Olympic marathon team. The 2:21 men’s cut-off meant that Cliff could have potentially been stuck running alone for much of the race. Understandably, she didn’t want to go all that way to run a marathon in which she might not have someone who could help pace her.

Dylan Wykes ad Rory Linkletter before STWM 2019 start. Photo: Maxine Gravina

Salary losses

Just like others whose workplaces have closed due to the virus, when runners don’t race, they don’t get paid. On top of the prize money at races, there are bonuses built into contracts for World Championship and Olympic qualification.

Team Canada was named for the World Half Championships, so those runners should see their bonuses honoured, but a team wasn’t named for the World Indoor Championships.

On a positive note

The LA Marathon ran as planned over the weekend and as of now, spring track meets seem to be running as scheduled, along with the Boston and London marathons. National sporting organizations have told athletes to continue to train as planned and take necessary precautions when travelling, but not to worry.

For updates on race cancellation or postponement, see here.